Narendra Dabholkar became a martyr when he was shot dead by unknown assailants by the side of a road in Pune. He had been fighting against superstitions all his life. His single-minded devotion to the cause had earned him many enemies. He had been attacked violently in 1990s twice. While there are many areas where one can and have to disagree with the warrior of rationalism, none can deny his sincerity and commitment. He strived for a healthier, stronger Hindu society in his own way. The Anti-Hindu forces have made use of his campaign to malign Hindu culture. Repeatedly we are told that the very Hindu culture and religion are rationally deficient and hence the abundance of superstition and charlatanism in Hindu culture. Somehow the shallow rationalists want Hinduism to follow the path of the Western history of rationalism where every triumph of science and reason had to be won through a hard battle with the religious authority.
However a survey of the popular culture of the West shows that it teems with superstition and deficiency in scientific outlook. It is not culture specific as claimed by many. None can deny the fact that India has been teeming with superstitions. However there is a major difference between the Indian superstition and the superstition as seen in the Western nations. Indian superstitions are mainly not completely the result of social anxieties which in turn are the result of the colonial impoverishment, missionary influences and additionally the failure of the Nehruvian state apparatus. The western superstitions are essentially and in most cases though not completely the result of a theological assault and aggravation on the dark aspects of the human psyche. This aspect needs an explanation. For example, a survey of the major superstitions would reveal that they come from the anxieties over the child health or health of the near and dear ones in the family. This is the result of the failure of the State to take a good humanistic medical network to the people in backward areas.
Another phenomenon in India's backward states is witch hunting. Poor rural and tribal women are accused of being witches and are killed. However a survey of Indian folk and classical literature shows that the idea of witch –women practicing black magic- is conspicuous by its absence. The very concept is derived from western religion and folktales which abound with evil witches. The children are taught to fear such evil witches who lure the children only to turn them into toads. It is not an accident that most of the witch hunting happens in and around the places where missionaries took the western education and culture. One does not have to convert to an alien religion to internalize the concept of witches. Almost every western educated and semi-educated person knows witches. And this mixed with family feuds, the fear at female spirituality etc. can become effective breeding ground for witch hunting.
Usually when a Hindu moves from the impoverished state to a better socio-economic condition most of his or her superstitions cease to exist. But in the case of the West it is the affluent who churn out superstitions like anti-Christ incarnating as a child, blood sucking historic monsters in your backyard and worse the achievements of non-western civilizations are attributed to aliens from other planets and not the forefathers of the non-European civilizations. The Western superstitions are the children of a theo-racial arrogance coupled with abject scientific ignorance.
Then there is of course the problem of fake godmen. All humanity has needed spiritual counselors and the cultures world over have produced genuine sages as well as incredible charlatans. Even here there is a marked difference. Even the worst of the charlatans in India have not led their followers into mass suicides as in the case of mass suicides reported in the Western culture with unbelievable regularity: Jonestown to David Koresh to Heavens' Gate – the mass suicides or homicides can be traced to the Biblical idea of apocalypse internalized by the cult leaders who considered themselves the promised messiah. One can extend this to the nuclear arms build-up initiated by US and the West who may be unconsciously driven by the Biblical vision of Armageddon again the idea of which is part of the popular culture.
That brings us to the tragic death of Narendra Dabholkar and his controversial bill to end superstition. One man's superstition is another man's faith. So where shall we draw the line? How much right can the State have to decide what one person believes is superstition or not? Dabholkar belonged to the socialist school of thought which considered the State to be the ideal representative of the collective will of people. In a country like India with a rich cultural knowledge base the line between the indigenous knowledge system and superstition is a thin one. Is panchagauya indigenous knowledge or superstition? Is Bharatanatyam a social degradation which needed to be banned as was claimed by missionaries and Dravidianists or is it a wonderful spiritual art form as proved by Rukminidevi Arundale? Is fire-walking a superstition or a therapeutic system which helps people to walk through the tests of life in hard times providing them self-confidence?
But can we allow abject exploitation of our people in the name of religion by charlatans? The beating and chaining of women in the name of exorcism happens in many temples, churches and Islamic holy places. These women who are actually in need of psychiatric treatment or are victims of abuse are treated worse than animals by charlatans who fleece their relatives. No god picture that is not framed in glasses oozes out holy ashes. 'Materializations' of objects by these god-men are invariably within the size of the palms. Miracle stories of even genuine saints and sages, who lived exemplary transparent lives, are narrated by fraudulent people after their Samadhi and marketed by corporates.
Dabolkar fought against superstitions all his life. He is often accused that he only targeted Hinduism. Even if it is true, that will seldom lead to a point of desolation because Hinduism is the only religion that can flourish vibrantly after being cleansed of all superstitions and blind beliefs. Swami Vivekananda boldly declared:
Is religion to justify itself by the discoveries of reason, through which every other concrete science justifies itself? Are the same methods of investigation which we apply to sciences and knowledge outside, to be applied to the science of Religion? In my opinion, this must be so, and I am also of opinion that the sooner it is done the better. If a religion is destroyed by such investigations, it was then all the time useless, unworthy superstition; and the sooner it goes the better. I am thoroughly convinced that its destruction would be the best thing that could happen. All that is dross would be taken off, no doubt, but the essential parts of religion will emerge triumphant out of this investigation. Not only will it be made scientific, as scientific at least, as any of the conclusions of physics or chemistry, but will have greater strength, because physics or chemistry has no internal mandate to vouch for its truth, which religion has.
In his own way Narendra Dabholkar was heeding the call of Swami Vivekananda.
However the cleansing has to be done by an enlightened selfless leadership. The present pseudo-secular polity which is based on caste and minority vote banks is far cry from such an enlightened leadership. Scientists, free-thinkers, psychologists, sociologists, Hindu Acharyas, Hindu nationalist organizations, community leaders, women representatives, the leaders and educators of tribal communities, medicine men – they all have to sit together and form a legislature to clean our nation of charlatanism in the name of religion. This has to be done in the spirit of a common goal of making Hindu society healthier and a real guide to the world community to follow. That shall be the real tribute to the fallen martyr of reason and humanism.